Remembering the Past to Build a Better Future

On the bus from Krakow to Berlin, I was excited but also a little nervous and not quite sure what to expect in the final part of our journey. As a German major, I have spent the last seven years learning the German language, history and culture, but this would be my first time actually setting foot in the country and interacting with native speakers. However, I was not only ready to test out my language skills, I was curious to see how the Germans would present information on the Second World War in their various museums, given all of the atrocities the Nazi regime committed. While I didn’t get to use my German speaking skills nearly as much as I had hoped, I did learn a great deal over the course of our stay. Berlin is a unique place, and I believe it was the perfect destination to end our trip given its complicated postwar history that is clearly seen throughout the city.


Display in the German Historical Museum

The victors are typically the ones who get to write our History, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which the Germans presented us with the hard facts, no sugar coating or omitting of information to show themselves in a more positive light as we saw in France and Poland. The German Historical Museum was a great example of this non-biased factual presentation, but I believe the Topography of Terror Museum that we visited gave the most in-depth information about the war, far more than we have studied in any of my German or History classes at Ohio State. Here was a country that was prepared to take the blame and own up to their crimes, creating a narrative from their grievous mistakes that future generations can learn from.

The top of the Reichstag Dome

Bearing Witness to Brutality

Walking through the notorious gate of Auschwitz I was an experience I’ll never forget. The sky above was dark and gloomy, and the series of brick buildings in front of me, surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence, emanated a sense of evil and menace.  As we made our way through these cramped buildings, quickly ushered along by our tour guide, a mixture of profound sorrow, anger and disbelief at the number of individuals who suffered and died here weighed heavily in my chest.

All that I have learned about the Nazi death camps in my classes, even the harrowing pictures and personal narratives from survivors that I have read, could not compare to walking the grounds in person and really understanding the scale of the events that took place there. 1.1 million dead are an unfathomable number, which the exhibits and tour guide sought to help us visualize and comprehend. There was a room filled with 100,000 pairs of shoes, and these were just some of the shoes that were deemed to be unwearable. Shoes in better condition were shipped back to Germany to be worn again, as were other articles of clothing and more personal items such as hairbrushes or pots and pans. Most upsetting for me was the room filled with 2 tons of human hair, or the equivalent of 40,000 women. Some of it was still carefully braided, exactly as it was 75 years ago. This hair would also be sent back to Germany, to be weaved into cloth or to stuff pillows and mattresses.

While the two camps we visited did feel a bit more touristy than I was expecting, with bookshops, several snack stands and groups of people taking selfies outside, I believe that it is important for people to see these places in person. It is our responsibility to preserve the memory of the millions who suffered and died in the Holocaust, and to prevent it from happening again. Understanding what happened and seeing the place in which it occurred in person, where it is impossible to ignore the brutality, is the most powerful way to accomplish this. I believe that given the chance, it is an important place to visit and also to preserve for generations to come.

A Troubled National Memory: The French Perspective on D-Day and Nazi Occupation

During our time in Bayeux, we visited a series of French museums with exhibits on D-Day and the Second World War. It was interesting to see the French perspective, having only studied the events as they relate to American forces in any detail. There was far more emphasis on the efforts of the French Resistance movement, and not much mention of Vichy France and their collaboration with the Nazis. One exhibit in the Caen Memorial Museum went so far as to say that France would have liberated itself soon enough, with or without Allied help. Countries tend to tell their side of history, but this view is highly problematic, and I found it troubling to see it voiced so prominently in a museum display, especially as groups of young school children filtered through the museum with us.

Display in the Caen Memorial Museum stating the French didn’t need help from the Allied Forces.

Other exhibits, including a short film that we watched in Arromanches, the town that lies beyond Gold Beach, had a focus on the aftermath of the invasion and the toll taken on French citizens during the ensuing weeks of combat. Around 20,000 civilians were inadvertently killed during this time, and those that survived watched their homes be destroyed in the chaos. This was something we hadn’t discussed as much in class, and I found the images and stories presented to be of particular interest and value to our studies as they opened a new narrative that I hadn’t considered before. There’s so much focus on the Normandy beachhead landings and following military engagements that we often overlook what some of the French people caught in the middle of these events went through, and the true cost of total war.

Gold Beach and the town of Arromanches

When considering what was presented in these museums, it is clear that France wants to paint an image of themselves as victims under occupation, shading over any of Vichy’s complicity with the Nazis or the deportations of Jewish people that they allowed to take place. This idea of national victimhood also coincides with the memory of the Resistance, which got a great deal more credit in French museums than sources that we studied in class gave it. The French national memory of the Second World War feels troubled, and it is evident in every museum that we visited that they are not yet ready to come to terms with some of the ugly and difficult to process realities buried in their past.

Going Underground

Having never left the country before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I got to London. After a rough landing at London Heathrow, my first task was to buy a ticket and navigate my way across the city to the hotel using the extensive subway system, known as the Underground, or more simply, the Tube. Little did I know, this public transit system that I would be using to get around for the duration of our stay would be one of the most significant experiences for me in London. I have gained a lot more confidence in myself and my abilities from successfully navigating the city via the Underground.

Map of the Underground

Our home base for the week, the Lancaster Gate Tube stop

My only real experience with public transit before this trip would be the bus system in Columbus, OH and that pales in comparison to all of the different options London has to get around. While sometimes a little too crowded for my liking –in fact, nearly 5 million people utilize it every day– the Underground is a fast and efficient way to navigate the city. The novelty of it never seemed to wear off for me, no matter how many times I was getting on and off with the group. Each of the different lines and every station along the way had its own individual quirks, which made each trip an exciting experience. Londoners move fast, so it was always a brisk walk down to the platform, where you could feel the breeze of the next train hurtling down the tracks towards you. Sometimes there were seats, sometimes there weren’t as we crammed into the crowded cars, the announcer always reminding us to “mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Just looking around the tram full of businessmen, travelers and schoolchildren, it was easy to see how central the Tube is to every Londoner’s lifestyle.

A train pulling into the Tottenham Court Road Station

I was also struck by the deep history of the Underground, dating back over 150 years. Of this history, what stood out to me the most was its use as a nightly public refuge during the bombings of the Blitz. If you didn’t have an Anderson shelter buried in your back garden, the Underground was the safest place to be. Walking through the stations and riding through the tunnels, I often found myself reflecting on this. It was hard to imagine amidst all the daily commute hustle and bustle that this too was an area where the “People’s War” was fought, as the Luftwaffe bombed the city above.

While at times a little stressful, I believe that my experience navigating the Tube has helped to prepare me for some of the other stops later on in the program, where I may not be able to understand the language. It also gave me a different perspective on London and the people who live there, which really brought the city to life for me in a way that our readings could never accomplish.